United Airlines officials testify after United physically forced a customer off a Chicago flight. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

What a boycott that never happened can reveal about blame, consumer psychology and the free-market system

Imagine that a passenger is asked to leave an overbooked flight. When the passenger refuses, saying he is needed for important work, he is physically assaulted and dragged off the flight.

Imagine that the American public directed its anger not at the airline, but at the passenger.

The above incident happened in real life. David Dao, a doctor, was flying United Airlines when this took place in 2017.

We are scholars of marketing and consumer psychology, and we’ve researched how the U.S. culture of victim blaming prevents punitive action, such as a boycott, against companies.

The video showing David Dao getting dragged off the plane went viral.

Consumers are angry – but not at United

Initially, consumers were outraged. How could United possibly justify violence to enforce this unfair – and arguably illegal – practice?

But as quickly as they were ignited, the flames of outrage seemed to be partly doused with new information about the victim of the incident. Dao had allegedly traded prescription drugs for sex with one of his patients. Dao was convicted of several charges, though he denies others.

And it seemed like for some, United was off the hook. In fact, United’s earnings even went up in that fiscal quarter.

Some consumers shifted the blame for the incident away from United and toward the victim. The new information about Dao’s past behavior had no logical bearing on the cause of the United incident, and so should have no impact on consumers’ judgments of blame.

“Should,” of course, is the operative word.

A large body of research in psychology has consistently shown that people don’t always assign blame rationally. In fact, we often use irrelevant information about someone’s personal characteristics when making blame judgments.

Polling the public

With this background in mind, we conducted some research of our own.

A self-regulating free-market system works when consumers punish companies that deliver faulty products or services, especially when this failure causes physical harm to other consumers. Our core prediction was that consumers would fail to live up to this obligation in situations like the one we described.

We posed as pollsters asking passersby for their opinion about events in the news. We gave those who obliged a synopsis of the David Dao incident and asked whether or not they were familiar with a few of the related details. For half of the participants, one of those details related Dao’s past immoral behavior. For the other half, this detail was omitted.

We then asked each participant if they’d be willing to sign a petition against United, effectively punishing the company for its wrongful actions. Sure enough, a subtle mention of Dao’s unrelated transgression was enough to reduce the signing rate by almost 20%.

While a majority signed the petition in both groups – 66% when Dao’s alleged transgression was mentioned and 85% when it was not – it did seem that consumers used this information to decide whether or not to take action.

United’s earnings went up in the same fiscal quarter as the Dao incident. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Playing the blame game

This initial field experiment supported our hypothesis, but we also wanted to know why this pattern might be emerging, and if it would hold in other product-failure contexts.

In a series of follow-up experiments, we created a number of scenarios about product-failure situations and tested consumers’ responses to them. The contexts ranged from burn-related injuries caused by a faulty travel mug to a car accident resulting from failed brakes. In all of these scenarios, we made it explicitly clear that the product was faulty.

Much like in our field experiment, we manipulated whether the victim – a fictional character – was a good or bad person in a completely unrelated way.

For example, in the travel mug scenario, the coffee-burn victim was a bank employee who found extra money in his bank drawer. He decided to either keep the money for himself or tell his manager about it. We then described the victim’s experience with the faulty travel mug.

We used rating scales to measure consumers’ judgments of blame for the incident and their intentions to punish the company, either through spreading negative word-of-mouth or supporting a lawsuit. In every scenario, the “bad” victim was blamed to a significantly greater degree than the “good” victim, which in turn reduced consumers’ stated intentions to punish the company.

So it does seem that blame, based on irrelevant personal characteristics, is at the root of the David Dao incident and others like it.

But there’s one more wrinkle to the story.

A just world

A prominent theory in social psychology is that most humans have a fundamental need to believe that the world is just. It is too frightening for most people to believe that bad things can happen to good people and vice versa.

Combined with what psychologists know about blame, this suggests that if someone is a morally bad person, we’re more likely to tell ourselves that they deserve to suffer and therefore blame them for things that aren’t their fault.

In our follow-up experiments, we used an additional rating scale containing questions about the extent to which the victim seemed like someone who deserves to suffer in general or deserves bad luck.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in all of our follow-up scenarios, the “bad” victim was seen as more deserving of suffering than the “good” victim. But more interestingly, our analysis showed that these deservingness ratings predicted blame, explaining why consumers blamed “bad” victims for faulty products in all of our follow-up experiments.

As consumers, it’s difficult to change our psychological responses to people, companies, and other events in the world. But hopefully our research and that of others can serve as a reminder that blame should be about causality, and that victims rarely – if ever – are the true cause of their own suffering.